Remembering Lew Douglas

The Bay Area Math Project and the Alameda Contra Costa County Math Educators presented Lessons from Lew, a professional development session in memory of Lew Douglas,  a leading Bay Area math educator who passed away in April. Lew delighted in math and developed lessons to allow others to share in that wonder.

We celebrated his life and contributions by sharing some of our favorite classroom activities designed or inspired by Lew Douglas. Kim Seashore shared what she learned from him when she was a young teacher of trigonometry. I shared Lew’s introduction to the golden ratio (based on the geometry and algebra of the pentagram); and an activity about symmetric polygons, which can be foundational in a transformational approach to geometry. Some attendees shared their own memories and lessons from Lew.

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I link to expanded versions of the session’s handouts on my Talks page.

— Henri

I wrote an obituary for Lew. An edited version will appear in the January issue of the California Math Council Communicator. Here it is.

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Lew Douglas took his own life on April 22. Lew was a leading Bay Area math educator, and frequent presenter at Asilomar and Palm Springs, I had known him for over 30 years. During our decades as high school math teachers, we frequently exchanged ideas, even though we were not at the same school, and we attended each other’s talks at conferences. Lew’s interests in math education ranged widely, and he seemed to know a lot about everything: the history of math, complex numbers, statistics, geometry, and more. I think he contributed to the early versions of the CPM books.

Lew worked at the College Preparatory School (CPS) in Oakland for many years. One of his colleagues there, Joel Teller, writes:

Those of us in the department had been working in our own universe and not really aware of what other schools were doing. [… Lew’s] background was invaluable for us. […]We eventually put all of our materials into teacher-generated texts. Lew was important in this work and pioneered many aspects of the curriculum. He had many ingenious ideas about new ways to present the material.

Many times Lew would come back from conferences with innovative ideas that we put in our materials, with more or less success. He was fond of the notion that “if half of the new things you try work, then you’re not trying enough new things.” He was always supportive of new ideas –he never said “that will never work.”

After CPS, Lew worked for the Bay Area Math Project, and offered professional development workshops for many districts. At that time, maybe six or seven years ago, Lew suggested to me that we collaborate on developing a transformational geometry curriculum. He was thinking big, trying to sort out the implications of such a curriculum over three years of high school math, and envisioning what would be taught when. I suggested we start with a booklet for teachers and curriculum developers, to lay down the logical foundations of such a curriculum. I am very happy that he agreed to that plan, because we were able to complete that project, which now resides on my website, and is available to all. And it is indeed being used: a year ago, or so, Lew met someone who described our booklet as “his bible” as he worked on a major curriculum project.

In addition to working on this document, Lew and I jointly taught professional development workshops for teachers on this topic. Emiliano Gomez had also worked with Lew as a workshop presenter. He writes:

It was always a pleasure to work with Lew. He was thoughtful and reflective, and he loved to learn as well as to teach. He liked being clear and thorough and to go deeper than the surface on any theme. Working collaboratively with him was a privilege. I always felt comfortable and confident knowing that he would bring his ideas and professionalism to make our team better. But the one thing that made him a special colleague to me, and which I want to share about him, was his enthusiasm, his passion for math and for education. When he came up with or learned a bright idea, or a bright explanation, or a bright connection, he had a twinkle in his eyes and a smile that filled the room. And he always shared his enthusiasm in those moments. It was contagious and a joy to see.

Even as a participant in a conference workshop, Lew stood out. Here is an anecdote from David Sklar:

During the lecture session, the audience was very attentive, they remained lively, asked good questions. With about fifteen minutes remaining before we had to give up the room, I put up the next to last step in the mathematical development. There were blank stares all around, then everyone reverted to group mode. The room became quite noisy. With less than ten minutes left, I realized that, with more time, the groups would certainly arrive at a good understanding of the statement, but we did not have more time available. At that point, Lew, sitting in the last row, stood up and, in a firm voice, pointed at me and said “I would like to hear what he has to say”. As the room quieted, I rephrased my statement, Lew asked a follow up question, and suddenly everyone nodded. Enlightenment had spread around the room. This is an example of Lew’s talent for seeing into the heart of a problem and then bringing everyone else with him.

It was always a challenge coordinating with Lew, as both of us were busy with various other things. He had a huge folk dance commitment, he co-led the local NCTM affiliate, he was active in politics (a campaign for truth in political funding). He sent frequent e-mails to a small group of us about interesting things he had read about recent political developments. He also taught online courses and enjoyed doing math with his granddaughter. This was a guy who was enthusiastically engaged in life in so many ways.

I knew he had suffered of depression many years ago, so when he mentioned it last year, I assumed he’d get over it like he had in the past. I had some ideas for a few theorems we could add to our booklet on transformational proof, and sent those to him, hoping that it would give him something positive to focus on. He started to work on those, and sent me a note to double-check his proofs, saying he couldn’t think like he used to. I responded with a couple of additional thoughts, but never heard back. It’s hard to believe it ended this way. I just can’t wrap my head around it. Those of us in the math education community who knew him miss him terribly.

— Henri

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